Tony Cummings quizzed the worship leader at Belfast City Vineyard Church, HARMONY SMITH, about her life and ministry
Harmony Smith never saw herself as a worship leader. She started leading worship at Belfast City Vineyard Church when the keyboard player broke her arm. Now the recent release of Harmony's studio EP 'The Feast' has demonstrated her talent to the worldwide worshipping Church. Reviewers have struggled to identify precisely what it is that Harmony brings to the crowded worship market. One American reviewer suggested she had "a sound similar to British pop vocalist Dido" while a British writer praised Harmony's "deep theological lines which encourage me as so many contemporary worship songs are quite shallow." One thing all the reviewers seem agreed about though is that this singer/songwriter, whose voice was first heard on Vineyard UK albums 'Creator' (2011) and 'Spirit Burn' (2013), brings a songwriting maturity to the modern worship arena.
Harmony has lived in Belfast for 13 years, but she wasn't born there. She told Cross Rhythms, "I was born in Colorado, but when I was less than a year old my parents moved to Communist Yugoslavia. We lived there for a couple of years, but I spent the bulk of my childhood in Austria. My parents have been missionaries for over 35 years and currently live in Croatia. My family all sang and played instruments, and so I was around music for as long as I can remember. From an early age I was exposed to a variety musical styles and expressions, both inside the church and outside the church. One can't really spend a decade in Austria and not attend the opera! As a result of my upbringing, I love diversity. I can remember making a decision to follow Jesus when I was about four. My mom is very gifted in working with children, and teaching them about Jesus. I am so thankful for her investment in my life from an early age. Even though I played piano and could sing, I never saw myself being a worship leader."
Harmony began writing songs "for as long as I can remember. She said, "It is how I connect with Jesus. I don't write songs for the sake of writing songs. Writing songs is like my prayer language: I speak to Jesus and he speaks to me. Most of my songs will never see the light of day and will never be published. I don't feel under any pressure to write songs for publication. I never want it to be about that."
Harmony met the man who was to become her husband and who today pastors Belfast City Vineyard while she was at university in Chicago. She explained, "A mutual friend set us up on a blind date! We were married about a year later. When we met, Andy was already sensing the call to Northern Ireland. He was also involved in the Evanston Vineyard and this church had been instrumental in planting Belfast City Vineyard. It was through those relationships and connections that we ended up moving to Belfast. Andy's degree included an internship placement, which he was able to do in Belfast. So initially we came here for a year. Little did we know that 13 years later we would still be here. We had been here for about a year when the current pastors decided it was time to move on. They asked us to take on leadership of the church. We were still in our 20s and probably didn't really know what we were saying yes to, but we agreed to do it. It has been such an incredible journey."
Belfast City Vineyard is one of the numerous charismatic churches - currently numbering over 1,500 - which was for decades linked to the world famous ministry of American power evangelist and speaker John Wimber. The Belfast church currently meets in a school on Sundays but have several other venues across the city which they use midweek. Harmony described the fellowship overseen by Andy and herself, "We are quietly building a church that includes and welcomes people from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. There is no hype around this, and as a visitor you wouldn't necessarily know this to be true. But this is the reality of what God is doing, and something that we feel reflects his heart for the city of Belfast and for Northern Ireland."
Belfast has, of course, suffered for decades because of the corrosive outworking of religious intolerance but the American-born pastor and worship leader feels privileged to have seen many things change in the city. "So much has changed in the 13 years I have lived here. I love being part of the transformation of Belfast. As we carry Jesus' presence into our city, we are seeing lives and landscapes change in remarkable ways. What I would say about the people of Belfast is that this is a resilient people. They are survivors and overcomers. While the troubles really did happen and really did leave a legacy of pain and suffering, there is also a rich spiritual legacy in this place. Many people have worshipped God on this island. And there are volumes of books and historical landmarks to prove it. Probably one of our biggest challenges in planting and leading a church in Northern Ireland is that the religious has gotten intertwined with nationality and culture to the point that people can't distinguish one from the other. People think they know what church and faith is all about. But a real relationship with Jesus and life with him is not the same thing as belonging to a religious group. It is a challenge to us to live out and model a life with Jesus which is centred on intimacy and friendship with him."
Since their earliest days Vineyard churches have been renowned for their pioneering approach to worship music. For many years it was the American Vineyard churches from which the numerous Vineyard albums and songbooks emanated but since the late '90s Vineyard UK has established its own musical identity. Harmony has contributed songs to Vineyard UK albums for quite awhile. Her "Come Lord Come" was on 2007's 'Love Divine' while "I Respond" was on 2011's 'My Soul Yearns'. Finally, in 2013, Harmony got the opportunity to record six of her songs for what was to become 'The Feast' EP. The project was produced by Jimmy Cooke, the general manager of Vineyard Records UK, who is also the drummer with much loved rock journeymen Verra Cruz.
Jimmy took Harmony into Vineyard's 252 Studios in Hull. It was a memorable experience for the singer/songwriter and a welcome respite from the intense demands of her church ministry. She said, "So much of what I do is the 'main and the plain' of pastoring and leading people. Because our services on a Sunday are in a school, we have a massive undertaking when it comes to set up and take down. It is not glamorous. It is good old fashioned hard work! Our circumstances and venue have taught us an awful lot about servant leadership. So to be in the Vineyard Records studio, and to be served by them was such a gift. They looked after us so well. One of the standout moments was when we were choosing our sixth track for the EP. I was leaning toward a hymn because I wanted something that was rich in theology and language. I suggested one of my favourites, 'Fairest Lord Jesus' but it seemed a bit of a long-shot because Jimmy had never heard it before. But to his credit, we gave it a whirl and there was an immediate sense of God's presence and creativity in the room - it was a very joyful moment."
Harmony spoke about the title track for 'The Feast'. "'The Feast' idea came as a spontaneous song, off the back of one of Andy's talks on a Sunday morning. It took a year or more for it to become a song in its own right and required a bit of help from guitarist and friend, Chris Hutchinson. For me, this song is full of vision for our city: All across our city and island Jesus is calling worshippers to himself. He is inviting us to feast on his presence."
Another outstanding track is "One Thing" which came out of Psalm 27. Harmony explained, "I was really challenged by this psalm because when I spent time meditating on it, I realised how much of my life was devoted to the 'many things' rather than the 'one thing'. During that time, I was asked to speak at what we call Friday Church - which is church in our compassion ministry. I was so frustrated because I was really struggling to write a talk, but this song came out. In that moment of frustration, I realized that I needed to stop trying to force something that He wasn't doing. And I needed to accept who I was, and how He had made me. So I brought this song to that meeting and instead of speaking, I sang it over them. 'Friday church' is messy and the people in it are some of the most vulnerable in our city. What an incredible privilege to share that song with them."
By her own admission Harmony's days are filled with challenges. She exclaimed, "I have two beautiful children, ages four and nine. Being their mummy is one of the biggest challenges but also one of my greatest joys." But a life of worship expressed in her "prayer language" of songs remains central in all that she does. Speaking about worship ministry Harmony took up the difficult question as to why there aren't more female worship leaders. She volunteered, "There are a number of reasons why, but one of the things I see is that women can find it hard to juggle kids and family as well as ministry. And it is ridiculously hard. Sundays are so exhausting. Just getting out the door on a Sunday morning can feel like an impossible task. I just want encourage the other mums out there who are feeling that pressure - that you are not alone. It is not easy. But I would say to them, please don't give up on your calling. The Church needs diversity of worship leaders: male and female, single and married, those with kids and those without. The Church needs your voice."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.